Retrotransposition amplifies LINE-1 (L1) to high copy number in mammalian genomes. The L1 protein encoded by ORF1 (ORF1p) is required for retrotransposition. This dependence on ORF1p was investigated by mutating three highly conserved residues, R238, R284 and Y318 to alanine, thereby inactivating retrotransposition. R284A and Y318A were rescued by further substituting the alanine with the appropriate conservative amino acid, e.g. lysine or phenylalanine, respectively, whereas R238K remained inactive. Quantification of the steady-state levels of L1 RNA and ORF1p failed to discriminate active from inactive variants, indicating loss of L1 retrotransposition resulted from loss of function rather than reduced expression. The two biochemical properties known for ORF1p are high-affinity RNA binding and nucleic acid chaperone activity. Only R238A/K exhibited significantly reduced RNA affinities. The nucleic acid chaperone activities of the remaining paired mutants were assessed by single-molecule DNA stretching and found to mirror retrotransposition activity. To further examine ORF1p chaperone function, their energetic barriers to DNA annealing and melting were derived from kinetic work. When plotted against each other, the ratio of these two activities distinguished functional from non-functional ORF1p variants. These findings enhance our understanding of the requirements for ORF1p in LINE-1 retrotransposition and, more generally, nucleic acid chaperone function.